If I were to explain what it means to be ableist… it is that difference is often seen as less. Ableism comes about because society has an unwritten rule that the need to enable those in the majority is more important than enabling those in the minority. This creates a hierarchy of those who are able to conform to social and physical ‘norms’ and those who cannot. This inability to conform can be due to physical, emotional, cognitive and even cultural differences.
As a society people who interact with their environment using different senses or physical abilities are viewed as disabled. However the social model purports that if the majority of people were to develop autistic sensory differences or to become wheelchair users then society would change to accommodate those majority difference. This has been borne out during lockdown, society has altered to accommodate home working and homeschooling because the majority needed to be accommodated in this way.
One of the reasons difference are not considered at a macro level is that it is extremely challenging to put oneself in the shoes of those who are different. This highlights the double empathy (Milton, 2012) issue that we as a society face. We are often told that autistic people find it hard to put themselves in the shoes of non-autistic people but how much do non-autistic people understand what it is like to be autistic or to be part of an autistic family?
One major issue is that people who have little experience with autism often show sympathy (feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune) but not empathy (the ability to understand and share the feelings of another)….The irony is not lost on me, that that I am writing about society’s inability to empathise with autistic people – but this is a truth that is rarely spoken.
Through the BML movement people who have not experienced either the positives or negatives of being part of an ethnic minority are beginning to wake up to the fact that sympathy is not helpful and can perpetuate negative stereotypes, neither is ignoring differences which stifles the narrative of minorities. It takes effort to understand another person’s lived experiences. It is necessary to study these differences and how they impact minorities, you can do this by talking to people from these communities, reading literature and research and through understanding the history.
The other thing that is needed is a paradigm shift in the way society views and enables difference. We should no longer view difference as something which lives on the periphery of society but rather something which is to be celebrated and utilised. We as a society should be asking much less …how do we fit you in the box and more.. how can we enable you to thrive outside the box?
Milton, D. (2012). On the Ontological status of autism: the ‘double empathy problem’. Disability & Society, 27 (6) 883-887. Retrieved from doi.org/10.1080/09687599.2012.710008, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09687599.2012.710008